First published by The Independent, 8th November 2016
Theresa May is visiting India this week cup in hand, to ask for a favourable post-Brexit trade deal. There’s arrogance in May’s return to Britain’s former colony, expectant that India will come up with the goods, but ultimately, the move shows how much the tables have turned.
Many people, particularly in my grandparents’ generation, still view British imperialism and empire with a dewy-eyed longing. The reality is, of course, that British rule in India caused the deaths of millions of people through administrative failure and imperialist cruelty. Numerous famines, outbreaks of cholera, the arbitrary and rushed drawing of the border between India and the newly-created Pakistan, mass-displacement, and the destruction of India’s cottage industries left the country impoverished and unstable.
Imperialism set India up as both Britain’s workhouse and convenient marketplace, and when India finally gained independence, it was reduced to one of the world’s poorest economies. For Britain to come begging now that we’ve made such a mess of things with our yet-undefined Brexit, opposed by 48.1 per cent of the electorate, is laughable.
Although a number of the more vehemently right-wing newspapers chose to focus on May’s ‘hardball’ stance on immigration during her visit, they didn’t pick up on the incongruity of the Prime Minister haggling over “Indians with no right to remain in the UK” whilst hankering after a lucrative trade deal.
At a tech summit in Delhi, May was pressured by business leaders including Sir James Dyson and Karan Bilimoria, founder of Cobra beer, to welcome more skilled Indian workers and students to Britain. The Government’s current position seems to involve the hope that India will still sign a cushy deal with us, while we crack down on Indians in Britain who’ve outstayed their frosty welcome.
The political conversation in Britain has, despite the influence of Corbyn, shifted perceptibly to the right. May knows that to keep the would-be-Ukippers and Brexit-devotees onside, she must act ‘tough on those foreign people’ despite surely recognising that she cannot turn back the clock on globalization.
The isolationist, shut-the-door sentiments that brought us Brexit are not going to serve Britain well when it comes to making international trade agreements, and to belief otherwise is a self-important indulgence that we can no longer afford. We live, for better or worse, in an interconnected world, and the issue of migration cannot be wiped off the table during trade discussions.
India wants access to the UK labour market for skilled workers, and the UK government wants to pander to the narrative that immigrants are an unnecessary scourge on our increasingly less green and pleasant land. On the basis of this impasse, a free trade agreement seems like a childish fantasy.
I wouldn’t blame India for putting up two fingers to Theresa May and Britain.